Activism When Others Are Part of the Problem

English: Raging Apathy
Raging Apathy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I don't recall when I first heard someone accuse someone else of being "part of the problem," but my best guess is that occurred in the context of sexism or racism. It is an accusation I have witnessed many times since, mostly from those on the political left and most often around various forms of activism. I have had it aimed at me several times, and I am ashamed to admit that I have directed it at others on occasion. I think it is understandable why we might label others as "part of the problem," but that does not necessarily mean that our use of the phrase is productive or that we do not pay a price for using it.

There are many different scenarios where we label others as "part of the problem" (e.g., the atheist who tarnishes the public image of atheism, the atheist who holds socio-political views with which we disagree, people who are overly inclusive in the manner in which they value human life). It seems to me that two of the most common involve the admission of apathy in response to some form of activism and inaction from a bystander. By examining each of these, it should not be difficult to understand the temptation of labeling others as being part of the problem. We might also be able to spot some of the potential dangers of doing so.

Activism and Apathy

In the first case, we can easily imagine a passionate activist attempting to rally others to his or her cause. Upon hearing his or her message, someone expresses lack of interest or apathy. This activist or one of his or her allies then accuses the person who expressed apathy of being "part of the problem." Obviously, the activist wants support and is bound to be disappointed by someone who expresses disagreement, lack of interest, or apathy. To the degree that the activist views apathy as an important obstacle to what he or she is trying to accomplish, it makes sense that the apathetic person might be perceived as "part of the problem."

I see at least two potential downsides to using the "part of the problem" label in such cases. First, the impact of the label on the person against whom it is used probably does little to bring about agreement, interest, or a reduction in apathy. Being told that one is "part of the problem" strikes me as unlikely to change one's attitude in the direction the activist wants. It seems more likely to elicit a defensive response and might even make the recipient more hostile to the activist's agenda.

Second and more important, I suspect that labeling others as "part of the problem" may be somewhat detrimental for the activist. It is overly simplistic and provides an excuse to ignore whatever reasons the person being labeled may have for disagreement, lack of interest, or apathy. It seems to me that the activist might learn something valuable by striving to understand these things rather than dismissing the person with this label. And of course, an excessive reliance on such labels might open one up to tribalism, polarization, and the like (i.e., those who agree with me are allies, and those who do not are "part of the problem").

Even the most passionate activists are going to prioritize their efforts in different ways. One person's top priority may not even show up on someone else's list. This does not mean that one person is right and that the other must be wrong; it just means that they have different priorities. Somehow, labeling someone as part of the problem because they have different interests, opinions, or priorities strikes me as lazy, irrational, and potentially detrimental to one's cause.

Bystander Inaction

The second type of scenario involving bystander inaction seems like a much harder one to argue against using the "part of the problem" label. Here we imagine an interaction where someone says something sexist, racist, or otherwise socially unacceptable and a bystander to whom the statement is not directed does or says nothing in response. By failing to respond, the bystander becomes "part of the problem" because his or her silence is interpreted as complicit agreement. I have bought into this interpretation myself (here is an example).

What makes this type of scenario harder to argue against? Many of us are inclined to think that someone who does or says nothing in the face of some injustice really is "part of the problem." School bullying is a great example of this. While few of us would place as much blame on the bystanders as we would the bullies, we do typically view them as having some responsibility. When they stand by and do nothing, they enable the bullying behavior to continue. In that sense, they are "part of the problem."

While both of the problems identified above (i.e., labeling someone as "part of the problem" is unlikely to change his or her mind and may be detrimental to the person doing the labeling) may apply here, they seem less compelling. In part, I think this is because the former case looked like a matter of people having different interests and priorities, while this one looks more meaningful. Here, it looks like a real injustice is taking place and someone is enabling it through inaction.

Suppose I witness one of my co-workers saying something blatantly sexist to another, and I do or say nothing. I think it is fair to say that I am helping to create an environment where sexism is tolerated even though I am doing so through inaction. If co-worker A says something blatantly sexist to co-worker B in front of me and I do or say nothing, it is difficult to argue that I am not "part of the problem" at least in some respect.

For me, the question here becomes less about whether we should label the bystander as "part of the problem" and more about what we can do to increase the likelihood that the bystander will speak up and/or do the right thing in future situations. Maybe there are approaches that would be more successful in achieving this outcome than accusing him or her of being "part of the problem." And even if many of us are inclined to think of such a bystander as contributing to the problem through inaction, I tend to think that it would be helpful for us to focus more on how we might reach such a person than on which names we should call him or her (even if we think they might apply).